Film review: “Blinded by the light” (2019)

“Blinded by the light” (2019)


Running time: 117 minutes

Written by: Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor based on Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Rollby Sarfraz Manzoor

Directed by: Gurinder Chadha

Featuring: Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir and Nell Williams

“Madman drummers bummers
Indians in the summer
With a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps
As the adolescent pumps
His way into his hat
With a boulder on my shoulder
Feelin’ kinda older
I tripped the merry-go-round”
– Bruce Springsteen, ‘Blinded by the light’ (1973)

Well after the disappointment that was the hollow promise of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyles terrible “Yesterday” (2019) comes another music inspired film that instead of aimlessly using the music as a framing device as well as resting on the baby boomer nostalgia for music that at once seems present but irrelevant comes a mostly true story in the excellent “Blinded by the light” (2019) that shares other elements as well with it being based in the U.K., having a minority as the main character, in this case a Pakistani man and of course the heavy use of music. Instead of ‘The Beatles’ back catalogue we have a deep dive into the oeuvre of Bruce Springsteen who is not only arguably more relevant but has proven himself to be a talent into his late sixties, still putting out albums, performing for over three hours at his shows, conquering movies and now this year having his music in a movie that challenges what it is like to live in a State where being a minority automatically makes you different as well as a target. Where this film is infinitely superior as well as far more enjoyable is that it is set in the real world (mostly) of the 1980s as well as being taken from true experiences, being based on a memoir that frames Springsteen’s music as a Universal key to be accessed by those willing to listen, picking up on messages that are not unique to their origins of New Jersey, USA but speak to a wider range, in this case a young man living in Luton, England who hails from another County, who is feeling pressure from almost all aspects of his life to ‘fit in’. This is not only a wonderful time capsule that harks to a time before the internet and all its trappings that perfectly illustrates the power of music, friendship, family, religion and politics, something Springsteen has been writing about for over half a century.

“Blinded by the light” is based on the book Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll written by Sarfraz Manzoor, who here is a co-screenwriter, published in 2003 that not recounts his life as a young man but also his development as well as his love for Bruce Springsteen, something he has in common with this reviewer. To be fair the film covers much about Thatcher’s England, such as the unemployment, the marginalizationof minorities and a host of other elements from the time, but it is also a look at what it was like to live as a young man of colour who feels like he doesn’t fit in, something not unique to the time as many young people of both genders feel this all too acutely, especially in 2019 with the advent of social media. Of course across the sea Reaganism had taken hold, Springsteens music of the time was how he felt about that, all the while become a beacon with his stratospheric album ‘Born in the USA’. What “Blinded by the light” shows audience is that there was a time when young people could sort this pressure out themselves not only using art but communicating with each other as well as their family members. We also witness real racism not only the overt bullying element but also the fear within Javed’s family of losing their identity as being from Pakistan, something even more relevant in 2019. Where and how to immigrants fit into a new country that is as foreign to them as it would be to live on another planet? There are no simple answers just mechanisms to assist with coping with real issues, one of those is art, for Javed it becomes Bruce Springsteen.

Co-written and directed by Gurinder Chadha whose biggest success to date was the football inspired “Bend it like Beckham” (2002) which has a lot in common with this new film, however where Beckham was inspiring as well as fairly straight down the line this new movie seeks to do two things that are a little over the top, that is to explain what fandom means while at the same time going too far to explain why Springsteen’s music is so important to so many people. The trick with Springsteen is to listen to his words and music both at the same time but as separate entities as well, this is a paradox which is solved by seeing the man live, where he ruminates between songs on a variety of topics, what works so well for him, here seems a little forced. This is the only weakness of the film, but it is a big one as there is nothing more boring and forced than a fan explaining his fandom, why something is so important should be evident in the work. There is too much quoting, sentimentalising and nods to the audiences who will either have knowledge of the music or will not. The use of music would have been far better utilised as a compromise to the drama and comedy of which there would have plenty without the constant nodding to Springsteen. In fact the best use of Springsteen’s music has come in movies that use it to highlight not to insinuate, or take his text, creating something new as is the case with Sean Penn’s classic “The Indian runner” (1991) which used a song of the great man’s (“Highway Patrolman”) turning it into a narrative film. 

“Blinded by the light” is set in 1987, Javed Khan and his family – Pakistani immigrant parents Malik and Noor, and sisters Yasmeen and Shazia – live in Luton, England. Javed likes contemporary rock music, which Malik disapproves of.  Javed feels out of place at his new school, where he is one of two South Asian students; the other, Roops, is a fan of “The Boss.” In Ms. Clay’s writing class, Javed develops a crush on a student activist named Eliza and becomes interested in the writing assignments. Javed talks to Ms. Clay after class about his poetry and diaries. During lunch Roops approaches him and gives him two Bruce Springsteen cassette tapes, calling Springsteen “the direct line to all that is true in this shitty world.” The film moves on from here as one might expect as the plot is not new by any stretch of the imagination but it is unique to one man’s experience which is original, there are as you might expect twists and turns that of course are given enlightenment through music which is one of the reasons for the movies existence. It is a ride that is improved by the music but audiences might feel a little hit over the head by the time resolution arrives.

This is a movie led by relative newcomer Viveik Kalrawho as Javed convinces us of who he is as well as the time period he is living in something he does with seeming ease which is what you require from your leading man. Wisely director Gurinder Chadha surrounds Kalra with experienced character actors at almost every turn which gives the benefit of having people who are able to act opposite someone with less experience offering the film options for its emotional core which this has in abundance. It does mean that the entire cast needs to know what kind of film they are in as well as the nuance that is required in any given scene, this may have been the main issue in terms of the actors. Because this is a hybrid of a narrative film as well as a musical there can be moments where audiences are asking themselves is what is taking place onscreen real or not? My feeling was that sequences that we see that are obviously fantasy should have been jettisoned for either straight performance or fully diegetic in nature, but the film makes have chosen to use more fantastical element. 

This is a movie framed by Springsteen’s music that will endear his fans to this movie in a way they will understand, however it could leave general moviegoers feeling like they have been hit over the head by not only a lot of explaining but possibly being talked down to as well, like if you don’t get it then you are borderline stupid. One of the reasons that Springsteen’s music is so popular, as well as filmic and international is that he paints his stories on broad canvasses with Universal themes that remain timeless as well as extremely personal. As I have already stated there needed to be much more subtly for this film to have been taken more seriously as well as possibly being more successful than it has been which is a tragedy as “Blinded by the light” needs to be seen. However, in saying all of that it is a very good film that highlights how little society has changed as well as how far we have come. It also goes a long way to highlight how much technology has changed which seems to be a needless distraction as it is heavy handed to say the least. The first half hour or so is the set up where as an audience we are thrust into the 1980s which for some may seem like a foreign land but then those people may appreciate how Javed feels, which is one of the points of the entire movie. In that case it is a success but on others it could have done with some more work.

I recommend this movie with really only small reservations, it has so much going for it as it is based on something very real, it tackles that with not only drama but comedy and of course the music of Bruce Springsteen which is of most importance as like the best art it is universal but has enough going for it that it has meanings to be discovered not on one listen but multiple listening’s and of course viewings. If you want a good night at the movies but also want to be rewarded then you should go and see this movie now.

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